Reading Legal Citations

by Philip Greenspun

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If you cannot read legal citations, then you cannot have an intelligent conversation with anyone in the legal profession. It is just like someone who doesn't know calculus trying to talk about physics. Fortunately, learning the legal citation system is a lot easier than learning calculus.
Legal cases are printed chronologically in moby sets often going into
hundreds of volumes.  Each volume is called a "reporter" for obscure
historical reasons.  Thus, the "Supreme Court Reporter" is a set of books,
not an individual.

A legal citation has the following form:

 <volume number> <reporter name> <page number>

There are two kinds of laws that might be cited: statutes (laws passed
by legislators) and cases (precedent decided by APPEALS COURTS ONLY --
lower court decisions have little value as precedent and are not
generally reported (except Federal District Court)).  Statutes are
available in CODES.

Here are some examples:


Ford Motor Co. v. Lonon, 2117 Tenn 400, 398 S.W.2d 240 (1966)

First comes EITHER the original plaintiff's or the appellant's name
(you can't tell unless you know the rule of the jurisdiction) -- in
this case, Ford is appealing a decision in favor of the plaintiff
Lonon so their name comes first.  After the parties, there is a comma
and we get a cite from the OFFICIAL reporter.  The volume number is
2117 (I think I made a typo here when I took this down because I doubt
Tennessee has 2000+ volumes), the reporter is "Tenn", short for
Tennesee, and whenever the reporter name is the same as a state, you
know it is the highest court in that state, the page number is 400.

If you are litigating in Massachusetts, for example, only the Harvard
Law Library would be likely to have an official set of Tennesee
reports.  If you want anyone to read the case, you'll have to ALSO
cite an unofficial reporter: 398th volume of West's SouthWest series,
2nd set (there are numbers 1 through 500 or something in the first
set, and then they started numbering over at 1 for the 2nd set), page

It is considered good form to list the year of the case afterwards.

(incidentally, Lonon bought a Ford tractor that never worked properly
and that Ford refused to repair -- Ford appealed all the way to the
highest court in Tennesee and lost if I remember correctly)


Delta Air Lines v. August, 450 US 346

Here Delta Air Lines is appealing a race discrimination case brought
by August.  She lost but the lower courts didn't make her pay Delta's
costs of litigation and they've appealed all the way to the Supreme
Court (nice guys).  The cite is 450th volume of the US reporter, page
346.  This is a Supreme Court case.  You might also see this as "450
S.Ct. 346".

(The Supreme Court ruled against Delta, by the way, and August didn't
have to pay their costs.)


M.G.L. c. 93A Section 9

This is a statute, from the Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 93A,
section 9.  These are bound up in volumes, although you'll want MGLA,
where the "A" stands for annotated with references to cases
interpreting statues.


15 USC 1402 (15th volume of United States Code, page 1402)

This is another statute, but this time it is federal.


Cites are not hard to figure out, and if you can't there is always the
"Blue Book" that decodes the weird reporter symbols and finally there
are excellent reference librarians in most law libraries.  Use them.

Reader's Comments

If all else fails after reading cites, you can use WestLaw

-- Cigar --, March 1, 1998
excerpt from found from

To search for a U.S. Code section by title and section number . . .

use the form at

-- Dan Connolly, April 25, 1998

On your "reading legal citations" page, you indicated that a reader might see 450 US 346 or 450 S.Ct. 346 as equivalent citations to a particular case. That's not quite right. The first is a citation to the "official" U.S. reporter, the second is to "Supreme Court Reports" published (I believe) by West Publishing. However, their citation references are wildly different. Thus, if you're looking for a case at 450 US 346, the same case in the S.Ct. may (and likely will) be found at a cite that is entirely different.

-- Jeffrey Donohue, April 27, 1999
I have no idea why you would put up a legal citations page. But I figure that I'll comment on some things.

As someone pointed out earlier, you can't just substitute U.S. and S. Ct. in a citation (note the periods in U.S. and the space in S. Ct.) The earlier poster said they "may" be different. Actually they WILL be different. The Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.) contains many more pages than the U.S. Reporter. Furthermore, The volume of the Supreme Court Reporter is such that all cases decided in a single term have the same volume. That is not true with the U.S. Reporter. Also, while the U.S. Reporter is the "official" reporter, it is published less often than the Supreme Court Reporter. Thus, lawyers working out of books use the S. Ct. citations more often. For example, Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. August is both 450 U.S. 346 and at 101 S. Ct. 1146. Furthermore, you need to put the year of decision of the case. Thus, the correct citation would be Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. August, 450 U.S. 346, 101 S. Ct. 1146 (1981). Placing both the S. Ct. and the U.S. reference is optional, you may use just the U.S. citation at well. It should be noted that it is never correct to use only the S. Ct. citation, you must pair it with the U.S. citation as well. In addition, there is a third reporter (L. Ed.), but I won't get into that here.

The citation for the Tennessee case should be volume 217. However, it should be noted that only practitioners in Tennessee and those who are writing for Law Journals need enter in the Tennessee Reporter cite. People in the rest of the country would just write the cite as Ford Motor Co. v. Lonon, 398 S.W.2d 240 (Tenn. 1966). Thus, only the regional reporter is cited to and the jurisdiction and year is included in parentheses).

In addition, as I have done above, the case name is either italicized or underlined when written.

As to the citation to the U.S. Code, it should be 15 U.S.C. § 1402 followed by the year of the code. In addition, it is not volume and page, when it comes to the U.S. Code, but rather title and section (note that there does not appear to be a section 1402 in title 15). For example, 17 U.S.C. § 101 is title 17, section 101 of the U.S. Code (the definition section of the copyright code). To find it you would look at the Title 17 volume and flip through to find the correct section. You could also look at U.S.C.A., which has case annotations and is more useful to lawyers. In the alternative you could go to the Legal Information Institute and do a search of the U.S. code on their site.

Someone mentioned WestLaw, you need a subscription to use that service.

If you really want to know about legal citations, you need the 17th edition of The Blue Book, which explains in painstaking detail how to correctly cite cases and statutes.

Sorry, I've always been very anal about proper legal citation format.

-- Tom D, April 3, 2001

Interesting page. But in the legal briefs that I have been doing for about the last ten years, to all court from superior to U. S. Supreme I have come to the conclusion that the better way to cite is to use all of the publications from say, --- US---, --- L Ed2d ---, --- S Ct and if there is one, ---ALR4th /Fed ---.

But I place all of this information at the bottom of the page as fotnotes, in 10 point rather than fill my legal pleading with junk that makes my arguments harder to read. Each citatin is then numbered through the whole document. Citations actually break up the flow of one's argument. I suggest that it be tried. I think judges would fast get used to not having to skip over legal citations just to read one's legal mumbo jumbo. And it takes up less space in the long run so with page limitations always being a problem (read pain in the ass) space is always at a premium.

David Wertheimer

-- M. David Wertheimer, May 31, 2002

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